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Labour's Defence Opportunity (Demos Quarterly, April 2014)

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The Coalition’s mishandling of Britain’s defences presents the opposition with a political opportunity, argues Jonathan Foreman.

The Conservatives were once seen as the party especially supportive of defence priorities; this should no longer be the case. The Cameron Coalition’s apparent indifference to such priorities and its willingness to diminish the armed forces capabilities and capacity offer Labour an opportunity to demonstrate that it is the party of responsible, adult, forward-thinking government.

If you compare Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) with the Tories’ 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the former was ‘strategy driven’, with a clear vision of what the UK’s armed forces were expected to be able to do and what they would need to perform their tasks. The latter, on the other hand, seems to have been almost entirely ‘deficit-driven’—a hodgepodge of rushed cuts that avoided serious thought about either the UK’s expectations of its forces or serious consideration of potential threats and tasks over the coming decades.

Moreover, the Coalition’s 2010 SDSR and subsequent decisions, including the controversial Army 2020 plan are increasingly said to be hollowing out and demoralising the UK’s armed forces. They have led to cuts and forced redundancies that will strip the services of capacities that would be extremely difficult to restore in the case of a military emergency. As Professor Gwyn Prins has written, with reference to the scrapping of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier and the fire sale of the UK’s Harrier jets:

For the sake of relatively small savings the SDSR has ground to dust most of the key enablers for the sovereign projection of British power.

The Coalition’s cuts also mean that even by the appalling standards of British military procurement, the public is getting poor value for money. Meanwhile, the government’s attempts to depict the cuts as ‘reforms’ that will give Britain greater military flexibility for less money have been contradicted by the Commons defence select committee and more significantly by worried US officials, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defence SecretaryRobert Gates, who have indicated that the cuts imperil the ‘special relationship’.

Yet the short-sighted destructiveness of the SDSR turns out to be in a Tory tradition. After all, few governments in British history have done as much damage to the armed forces as the Conservatives did with the ‘Options for Change’ review in 1990: the British forces taking part in the 1991 Gulf War were so underequipped that allied forces nicknamed them ‘the Borrowers.’ That was followed in 1994 by the swingeing cuts of ‘Front Line First’. And it is often forgotten that naval cuts by the Thatcher government played a role in causing and then almost losing the Falklands war.

Although Labour has rarely trumpeted its own quiet tradition of responsibility about defence matters, including its commitment to decent wages and conditions for service people, it is actually hard to imagine a Labour government doing as the Coalition has done and leaving Britain without a carrier strike capability for at least a decade. Certainly Labour’s defence ministers have often been better informed and better liked by the forces than their Conservative equivalents.

Moreover the most damaging defence policy and defence procurement choices of the past three or four decades have been made by Tory governments, such as the decisions to build the Nimrod MRA4 (finally cancelled in 2010 after a loss of £3 billion – the price of a new aircraft carrier), and to buy the Eurofighter Typhoon instead of the less expensive, combat proven F-16.

Some of the Government’s dubious defence decisions appear to be determined by a belief that the forces are a politically cost-free area of state activity from which to make cuts. Others are apparently prompted by unthinking commitment to privatisation, and still others by the excessive and unhealthy long-term influence over procurement policy of BAE, the London-headquartered multinational that has become Britain’s quasi-monopoly arms supplier, most of whose employees are now based abroad.

Among other errors, the Coalition has left this island nation without maritime patrol aircraft. Such aircraft, though designed for anti-submarine warfare, are also essential, especially given our shrunken Navy, to protect offshore infrastructure like oil rigs, detect pollution, interdict smugglers, patrol the sea lanes on which our prosperity and food supplies depend, escort our nuclear submarines and to carry out the kind of search and rescue operations that Asian nations have carried out in search of the missing MH370 plane.

Then there was the decision in 2012 to reverse one of the few wise recommendations of the 2010 SDSR, namely to fit catapults and arresters on the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. This renders both vessels a colossal waste of money, even if you accept the argument for two super-carriers rather than several smaller, cheaper ones. The accompanying decision to sell all of Britain’s Harrier jets to a baffled but grateful US Marine Corps for just £180m and leave the Navy with no ship-borne jets until at least 2020 was an unqualified disaster.

The most controversial of the Coalition’s measures is the proposed shrinking of the British Army from 102,000 to 82,000 regulars. Although this would leave it at a smaller size than at any time since the early nineteenth century, and although experts worried that 82,000 is too small a number from which to recruit the elite special forces operators on which the government proposes to place greater reliance, the Coalition argued that the cuts would be compensated for by the doubling of the reserve force to 30,000. However the army was already struggling to fill the ranks of the 15,000-strong Territorial Army even before the demoralising effect of redundancies and cuts. Furthermore the privatisation and outsourcing of recruitment has so far proved a tragicomic failure and seems unlikely to find enough recruits even to fill the shrunken requirements of the regular army.

The UK needs armed forces whose abilities are commensurate not just with the size of our economy or population, but with our current global influence, our alliances, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, our democratic ideals, and the sacrifices we have already made for those ideals.

Properly equipped armed forces enable the UK to uphold the rule of law to which we are committed, to enforce no-fly zones, to prevent or end mass atrocities as in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and to take part in large scale humanitarian operations. During the recent Philippines disaster, the US Navy with its carriers and helicopters turned out to be, once again, the world’s most effective emergency aid organisation, bringing vital food, water and medical assistance to villages cut off from road transport.

Maintaining armed forces at this level is theoretically achievable if the UK keeps to its NATO requirement of spending a minimum of 2 per cent of GDP on defence. But not if billions are repeatedly wasted on projects that represent a short-termist and half-baked industrial policy, and that support remarkably few sustainable jobs while subsidising the appetite of Britain’s monopoly arms supplier for making acquisitions abroad.

It certainly would not be hard for the opposition to cut through some of the rhetoric surrounding coalition defence policies: for example the dubious claim that despite current and future cuts the UK will still have ‘the fourth largest military defence budget in the world.’ Even if this were true all it would really illustrate is the UK defence establishment’s ability to get minimum bang from maximum bucks. Countries with smaller defence budgets—such as France and Israel—manage to field larger numbers of advanced aircraft, armoured vehicles and trained servicemen. The great and perverse achievement of Britain’s political-military-industrial complex is that despite funding the fourth or fifth largest defence budget in the world the UK fields the 9th or 10th strongest armed forces.

The military analyst who blogs under the name William Forbes likes to use the term ‘Bullingdon Defences’ to describe the misguided priorities of Coalition defence policy. In his words:

Bullingdonism… involves dressing the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force in new expensive, embroidered, exquisite equipment (e.g. F-35B strike aircraft)…whose alternatives would be much more economical and useful, then trashing perfectly good assets (e.g. the Harriers and HMS Ark Royal), then looking for small opponents to bully or even to fight (eg. Libya and perhaps Syria), demoralising the staff (in all the services but especially in the Marines and the Army) and then leaving the chaos and damage for others to repair and recompense.

Some of the Coalition’s actions may be attributable to the influence of the Liberal Democrats, but the current Conservative leadership has a profoundly different approach to defence than that of its predecessors. It has little apparent affinity for or interest in the armed forces; it believes that there are no votes to be won or lost in defence, and it seems to assume that the military vote is anyway in its pocket.

Moreover, the Tory modernisers’ obsession with the good opinion of the metropolitan media and their need to portray themselves as ‘cooler’ and less tradition-bound than previous versions of the Conservative party, evidently makes them allergic to too much association with the forces (except of course for ritualistic expressions of sympathy for casualties and praise for the fantastic job they do).

Certainly George Osborne, in his dual capacity as Chancellor and chief party strategist, has felt little hesitation to push for ever deeper cuts in the defence budget. Like many British leaders in the 1920s and early 1930s he seems to see defence spending as an expensive frippery, a form of insurance that has become unnecessary in the modern world.

All of this may reflect a lack of military experience in the cabinet that is unique in the history of modern conservatism. However, that in itself would not explain the fact that the Coalition’s National Security Council, the body that produced the SDSR (and which will carry out the next review in 2015 if the Government is re-elected) does not actually include the Chief of Defence Staff, or anyone from the armed forces, or for that matter anyone who has ever served in the military. (The CDS and other military officers only attend ‘as required.’)

Of course there is much less military experience in the Commons in general than there was 30 years ago thanks to the end of national service. But such experience or the lack of it are no guarantee of good or bad decision making: George Robertson who had no military experience was one of the best defence secretaries of recent times, while Denis Healey who had been a beachmaster at Anzio and finished the war a Major, was responsible for the disastrous Defence White Paper of 1966.

There is a strong argument that the Chancellor’s complacency about military as opposed to financial dangers to national security is a naïve, historically ill-informed attitude, akin to previous governments’ incorrect assumptions that peace is and will continue to be the norm in human affairs. (It is no surprise that we no longer hear much talk of the End of the History or the Peace Dividend, those mythical beasts whose arrival was supposedly portended by the collapse of the Soviet Empire.) Since the invasion of the Crimea by Russian forces its callowness has become more apparent.

To be fair, over the past two decades there has been considerable continuity in defence policy, with successive Tory and Labour leaders ordering cuts that presume an ever-less threatening international environment, and both parties making procurement decisions that expensively subordinated the requirements and desires of the armed forces to other government interests such as industrial policy, pork barrel politics and European integration.

Neither party has been willing or able to challenge the unhealthy influence over defence policy of BAE, or its ability to extract contracts that disadvantage the forces, the Exchequer and British national interest. The defence procurement process that was criticised so devastatingly by the Commons’ Public Administration Select Committee in 2013 has long been spectacularly inefficient, taking 50 per cent longer than that in France or Germany.

Nor has either party been willing or able to reform a top-heavy Ministry of Defence that is manifestly unfit for purpose—an organisation choked by a toxic stew of incompetence, careerist box-ticking and managerial jargon, and in which generalist civil servants vastly outnumber and dominate those with military and technical expertise. Both parties have blindly pursued privatisation and outsourcing: it was a Labour government that saw the sell-off of the Defence Research Agency (DERA) to Qinetiq; it is the current Conservative-dominated government that has privatised army recruitment with awful results.

Finally, neither Labour nor the Conservatives have understood the need to reform military establishments which are absurdly top-heavy, with far too many officers of “OF-4” rank (Wing Commander, Lieutenant Colonel, Commander) and above, and which seem unable or unwilling to perform the self examination that ought to follow what were arguably strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, politicians of both parties can be excused for getting so much wrong on defence, given that media coverage of the subject is so limited and inadequate. In general the defence establishment undergoes much less independent public scrutiny than other government activities (as Lewis Page pointed out in his important critique Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, there are no weekly defence supplements in the newspapers as there are supplements for education and healthcare).

So what should politicians – or more specifically, the next Government – do to repair this damage? One way would be for Labour to cancel the proposed mothballing of the UK’s second aircraft carrier and instead upgrade it with a carrier and arrester wires so it can do the job it was designed to do. The first carrier, on the other hand, without ‘cats and traps’ could be fitted out as the world’s first carrier-sized emergency/humanitarian aid vessel. It would be convertible to a warship if necessary and be available for loan to the UN and other organisations.

Labour should simply cancel the F35B and weather the upset that will cause in Washington. With the money saved from that ruinous purchase the RAF could buy maritime patrol aircraft off the peg from Bombardier, Airbus or Boeing. It could also purchase unglamourous but genuinely useful second-hand A-10 and AC-130 ground attack planes that the USAF is mothballing. Further savings could be gained by cancelling the purchase of the troubled, long-overdue and massively over-budget Airbus A400M transport plane and, like the Australian Air Force, buying more of the C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft that have been among the RAF’s more successful purchases.

It would also make sense given the diminished state of the forces after so many years of cuts, and given the UK’s unique military skill sets, for future British humanitarian and peace support operations to be paid for out of the UK’s increasing, uniquely generous but often poorly-utilised international aid budget.

In general there is plenty of room for thoughtful, considered reform by an incoming government, and the 2015 Defence Review could and should be a radical one. After all, as countries as small as Spain, South Korea and even Denmark and Norway have shown, it is possible to maintain some defence industrial capacity without spending billions on white elephants as per recent tradition.

This requires some common sense and a willingness to learn from the history of recent projects. For example, building a modern ‘air warfare destroyer’ from scratch as in the case of the Type 45 Daring class, rather than taking the path of buying a proven design from abroad, not only turned out to be spectacularly expensive but also landed the Royal Navy with less capable ships in smaller numbers than was hoped. In the field of procurement, government relations with suppliers must undergo a sea-change. If future British governments are ever going to buy British again, it should not be under coercive conditions.

Even the current chief of general staff, a political general par excellence who is not known for challenging the assumptions of his masters, has called for change, and remarked pointedly in a December 2013 RUSI lecture that ‘the defence budget does not exist primarily to subsidise the defence industry or promote defence exports. It exists to maximise defence capability’. It is worth noting that in the US, defence contractors and Defense Department procurement officials have been forced to testify before Congress about cost overruns and delayed deliveries, and the former face financial penalties for failing to meet contractual obligations. A new government should introduce such democratic accountability and an effective penalty regime into the procurement system.

It might also be useful for the next government to point out that British arms suppliers have been nationalised before and the outcome was arguably no worse for the public purse and for military effectiveness than the current system under which the forces, the defence budget and the British public have been repeatedly taken for a ride, and British arms manufacturing jobs moved offshore. The often morally if not legally corrupt role of senior officers who leave the services to become executives at contractors needs to be closely examined and monitored.

Any government intending to reform defence spending and procurement must also face the fact that almost without exception efforts at EU collaboration on big arms projects have been financially disastrous and led to UK purchases of overpriced and/or inferior aircraft and equipment (see the A400M transport aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon etc.) It clearly no longer makes sense to give each of the forces an even third of the defence budget, or to share cuts equally between them regardless of need or operational tempo. No government has yet had the foresight or political courage to end this practice.

Finally the armed forces have been so irresponsible in their battles against each other—the RAF’s successful campaign to destroy the Fleet Air Arm being a case in point—that it may be time to consider root and branch reorganisation, such as the re-absorption of the RAF into the Army and Royal Navy, or the establishment of a single UK Defence Force.

Government’s first duty is defence of the realm. It is not clear that the Coalition understands that. Its apparent failure to take seriously the requirements of defending the realm offers a golden opportunity to opposition leaders to present themselves as adult statesmen looking out for the long-term interests of the British people.